Unfortunately, I’m going to have to cancel class tomorrow. It would be great to move on from What I Say, but I don’t want to do that without a conversation about reading experimental poetry in context with subject positionality.
To that effect, please everyone read: “The Difficult Poem” by Charles Bernstein
And pick one poem from What I Say that is not one that we’ve already talked about in class, and do a Poem Profile on it following the instructions here. (Feel free to add profile elements if you find that you think any are missing from the list). Post it to the blog or email the profile to me. (Let’s also not ignore the racially charged language of “profiling” which is Bernstein’s term… How does his subject positionality as a white cis male affect his choice of words? Could we think of a way to engage with the poem that isn’t “profiling” it but draws on some of these approaches?)
Based on these, and the below, please come on Thursday with a list of approaches or questions (it could be a short list, two is a list!) for reading difficult/experimental poets by poets of color without reducing them.
Additionally, some of you have expressed the desire for more guidance in reading and responding to these poems. I’m going to write a bit about this here. Really, the only way to read experimental work is to just read it. There are kinds of questions we might ask as readers in response to the work, but ultimately reading experimental/difficult/innovative/avant-garde work requires an amount of trust (though not uncritical) in the work to teach you how to read it. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. That’s one of the reasons we’re reading SO MUCH poetry in this class.
However, I think there are some ways to approach reading as an active, critical, engaged reader that are helpful. I keep a reading journal, and I suggest that you do too. I started it years ago based on a chapter from Bernstein’s book Attack of the Difficult Poems in which he describes assigning a journal to his class. Here is the text:
“Third, I ask students to keep an intensive journal of their responses to the readings. I emphasize that these journals are to be, as far as possible, integrated with the flow of everyday life. Often students include the comments of their roommates or the responses of their friends. At Penn, reading a poem out loud or playing a sound file is bound to seem odd and provoke quizzical responses; these too become part of the journal. I ask the students to consider a specific set of questions and instructions:
What do you think of the poem? Give as much detail as you can as to why you feel the way you do. What does the poem sound like, what does it remind you of? Quote specific lines that seem relevant. Being specific is the hardest part of this assignment and I almost always request descriptions of the form and style of the different poems: which can be as simple as a description of the visual shape of the poem, its length, the type of lines (long, short, metrical, enjambed), the sort of style or rhetoric or vocabulary (unusual, common, pastoral, urban, urbane, fast-paced, slow-moving, pictorial, bombastic, introspective, descriptive, narrative, fragmentary, etc.).
The point is not for you to analyze or explain the poem but rather to try to react to it. Cataloging the features of a poem won’t explain it but it may enable you to enter the poem more fully.
Of the poems read for this week, which is your favorite? Why? Which is the best. Why? Are favorite and best the same? Rank the poems in your order of preference.
Of the poems read for this week, which did you like the least? Why?
Of the poems read for this week, which is the worst. Why? What are your criterea for deciding the quality of poem. Can poems that you don’t like or understand still be good poems?
If you have heard the audio performance, describe the performance and how it extends or contradicts the written version of the poem.”
I’m working on scanning another chapter from this book and will hopefully get that done today and will post it to the blog. See you Thursday.